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B.C. professor wins Kyoto Prize for developing frozen earth theory

UVic geology professor Paul Hoffman has won a prize that is considered to be the Japanese equivalent of the Nobel Prize
Paul Hoffman in the Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories. He has just won the Kyoto Prize for his work in the field of geology

University of Victoria professor Paul Hoffman was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences on June 14 for contributions to geological research, including his groundbreaking "snowball Earth hypothesis" that theorizes the planet's surface was once nearly entirely frozen.

sa国际传媒淒r. Hoffmansa国际传媒檚 immense field research spanning 60 years in Arctic Canada and Sub-Saharan Africa is crucial to our understanding of the Earthsa国际传媒檚 surface sa国际传媒 knowledge that students now, and for many years to come, will build upon in their academic pursuits,sa国际传媒 said Lisa Kalynchuk, UVic Vice-President, Research and Innovation, in a news release.

The Kyoto Prize is given by the Inamori Foundation and is the Japanese equivalent of the Swedish Nobel Prize. It is handed out to individuals for significant contributions to the fields of science and technology or arts and philosophy. Award recipients are given 100 million yen as part of the prize, which equals roughly C$850,000. 

Hoffman is the first geologist to receive the prize, and just the third Canadian in any field to win.

Hoffman's snowball Earth hypothesis was at first rejected by other scientists as implausible, who argued that if the earth was once so frozen as to have no liquid water exposed to the atmosphere, then there would be no way for it to recover from such extensive glaciation.

So Hoffman set out to test the theory, conducting geological surveys in the African country of Namibia to study 600 million-year-old glacial deposits that exist there. Those studies were able to prove aspects of his hypothesis and he published his findings in 1998.

"At the beginning of this work, and especially after I published my 1998 science paper, other scientists thought I was wasting my time, and even that I was bringing the science into ill repute," Hoffman is quoted as saying in his UVic bio. "But I believed that if I argued in favour of the hypothesis, I would find out if it was wrong sooner. But if the idea was right, the ramifications would be profound.sa国际传媒

Though questions in the scientific community still lingered after his initial research was published, Hoffman persisted. The snowball Earth theory is now widely accepted, according to the university. 

Hoffman began his career working for the Geological Survey of Canada studying plate tectonics before starting his first of two stints at UVic in 1992. He then took a 14 year appointment to work as a geology professor at Harvard University before returning to UVic in 2011, where he continues to work as an adjunct professor primarily engaged in research.

He has a new textbook on snowball Earth due out in 2025.

About the Author: Greater Victoria News Staff

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